As if the house didn't already have the upper hand, casinos are betting on new technology that lets them read the players better than any savvy gambler.
The casinos says the new systems can't be used against gamblers and might even benefit them, but some players and regulators aren't so sure.
"Intelligent" blackjack systems that have several elements, all invisible to the players, already are in use at nearly a dozen casinos across the country, and countless others are considering them.
Optical readers display every card that's dealt on a monitor in the casino's back office, while radio frequency identification, or RFID, devices embedded in chips record every chip bet or won, and every folded hand.
All of that information is pumped into databases that reveal to casino managers just how well - or poorly - a gambler is doing.
Bad gamblers might be encouraged with freebies or other "comps" - discounted hotel rooms, meals or merchandise - to stick around and play more. Good or lucky gamblers can be ignored or comped less, with hopes they'll go someplace else. Mediocre gamblers who are regular customers can get rewards for their loyalty to a casino.
"Every single player that plays gets profiled," Rich Soltys, senior vice president of Bally Gaming + Systems, said. Bally's electronic Table Management System equipment is in 11 casinos around the country.
"We track every card they take, every bet they make," he said. "We build a profile of every single player and now can report back to the casino for the first time exactly what their advantage is" over house dealers.
Sound ominous? Some gamblers think so.
Last year, Las Vegas attorney Bob Nersesian sued Bally parent Alliance Gaming Corp. and the Eldorado Casino in Reno, saying that casinos could use real-time information the system gathered from blackjack tables to fix games.
Casinos and equipment makers vehemently deny that could happen.
The suit was later dropped after Bally agreed to incorporate delays, and Nersesian said he thinks the case has caused many Nevada casinos to think twice about adopting the new systems. In Las Vegas, only the Flamingo casino has announced it uses Bally's blackjack tables.
Good gamblers "don't necessarily want the casino to know if [they're] there," Nersesian said. But at the new blackjack tables, "They're going to give me a name, they're going to have all that tracking on me, and I don't have a choice about it."
There's nothing illegal about player tracking. Casinos always have done it, but in the past it was a matter of a pit boss or dealer recognizing a frequent player and knowing his habits, not electronically tracking them and cataloging the data.
Using technology to track player habits "is kind of a fine line to walk," said Jerry Markling, chief of enforcement for the Nevada Gaming Commission.
"Our major concern is whether a device is cheating or making it easier for someone to cheat," he said. "We evaluate everything on a case-by-case basis."
Proponents of the new systems say they simply extend the monitoring technology that casinos already have with slot machines and are little different than the customer loyalty programs used by grocery store and hotel chains.
With slots, frequent gamblers can voluntarily get "player cards" that promise them comps and other bonuses. In exchange, the casinos capture valuable information about the players, such as how often they play, how often they win or lose, and how much they spend.
"All this is about is bringing technology to the pit," said Paul Meyer, president of ShuffleMaster Inc. At the Global Gaming Expo, he was showing off a table-management system similar to Bally's that ShuffleMaster plans to begin selling next year. "It's giving the same kinds of data we can get from the slots to the table management."
While the systems can track play in real time, game play can't be affected, Meyer and others say. They say they just want the aggregate data to determine whether each player is "valuable."
"If a guy comes in and he's an excellent player, winning hand after hand after hand, he's probably not worth [as much as] a mediocre player" who might leave more cash on the table, said Attila Grauzer, vice president for engineering for ShuffleMaster.
At the gaming equipment expo, vendors showed off all sorts of play-tracking devices, from new types of player cards for slot machines to tiny surveillance cameras that give a bird-eye view of every card on a table.
And that's just the beginning.
At a seminar called "Updating the Pit," Bally's Soltys said the company also is working on facial recognition software and even thermal imaging technology to help monitor players habits. A player who sweats a lot, for instance, might be a cheater or just have a bad hand. Soltys said the system could be used in some casinos in Asia in a year or so.
"This new technology stuff is just exploding," Markling said, adding that he would have concerns about systems that can track players' body heat or other biometrics.
For now, it's the electronically enhanced card tables that are at the cutting edge for casinos.
ShuffleMaster and Bally are two of the biggest suppliers of equipment to the casino industry. Their electronic table management products drew some of the biggest crowds at the gaming products show.
Meyer of ShuffleMaster said one of the biggest advantages of the tables is added security against cheating.
With the card scanners, casinos can help ensure dealers aren't misdealing.